Why New Airplanes as We Knew Them Are Over

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The progress of light aviation isn’t what we were hoping it would be, but in ways that we’re only now beginning to understand, that progress was unsustainable, though not for the reasons you might think. What is next remains to be done, though by looking at how people behave and how our world is changing, we can certainly make some solid predictions.

We do need to start from a point of clarity, however. If you were as lucky as I was to have started your flying journey back in the glory days of light aviation, you have some context on the current state of our little segment and what path it is likely to take in the years to come.

Historian Jared Diamond, in his seminal work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, wrote, “[T]he values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.” Granted, Diamond’s argument is sometimes dismissed as a rephrasing of Santayana’s oft repeated saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it’s more than that. Diamond goes beyond the sense of history as object lesson with the single word, “values,” which suggests, rightly so, I’d argue, that people cling to history not as a point of policy but, rather, as an emotional touchstone, whether that’s good for them or not. Most often, the latter.

And so it is with what we perceive as modern aviation, which started immediately after World War II and was powered by light, modern and relatively affordable, new, all-metal designs, like the Cessna 172 and the Beechcraft Bonanza, both of which are still being made.

Like many other enthusiast activities, flying is captive to its demographics, and the values the members of that demographic hold dear. The discipline of demographics is more than a marketing tool, though it is a powerful one. At its heart, the study of populations is a study of change, of how that change took place, what it means today and how it might transform future populations.

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These transformations are often influenced by conflict and technological advances. In the case of American aviation in the second half of the 20th century, big demographic changes were inspired by a couple of world wars, from around 1915-1918 and from around 1938-1945 (both conflicts were, of course, brewing for years beforehand). Those wars were driven by advances in communications, transportation, weaponry—advances that were only possible because of the intellectual, scientific, medical, agricultural, economic and industrial revolutions, each of which supercharged the progress of the others.  

These conditions helped populations boom and allowed heads of nations (who had the same base impulses as we are seeing in Europe today) mobilize and support huge armies with powerful weapons doing the tragic works of war, which predictably resulted in untold millions dead, nations in ruins, a world economy in tatters and a powerful industrial engine of progress needing to turn its energies to peacetime efforts. We saw the building of roads and dams and communications infrastructure, the creation of television, affordable transportation, along with cheap food and housing, along with building vast, modern standing armies and the machinery of war that demanded.

Invented along the way were beliefs that supported such societal structures, the belief in the good of progress, in the potential of humans to live in peace and in the ability of nations to agree to and work toward a shared framework of peace and prosperity.

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It was easy for Americans to buy into that vision, dubbed The American Dream, as the United States emerged from the war, despite the loss of around 400,000 people (this compared to an estimated 27,000,000 Soviets who perished). Moreover, because the United States mainland had never been effectively attacked, we emerged from the War with tremendous economic gains, and the economic and industrial might to greatly expand its powers and, hence, its wealth.

And aviation, an activity that literally gave regular humans powers that were before restricted to supernatural beings and imbuing them with a sense at once of direct participation in the American Experience and perspective that was special, because, in some ways, it literally was.

The Invention of Aviation

In popular culture, many assume that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. It’s an easy story to grasp. The only trouble is, it’s literally not true. The invention of aviation wasn’t the creation of the technologies behind airplanes—almost all of them existed pre-Kitty Hawk—but, rather, the combining of those scientific advances, such as light internal combustion engines, propellers (used in boats for a century before aviation took off), light, stiff structures and modern metallurgy, to create a machine that could fly. Granted, the translation of these different components into service of heavier-than-air flight imposed a decades-long process of failure and solution based solely on the nature of flight compared to travel on the surface of the land or water.

And it’s no coincidence that one of those modes, bicycling, would have helped create the Wright Brothers, who used their insights about bikes and motorbikes to make their first airplane. They used their understanding of everything from stiff, light structures to light, powerful engines coupled with an understanding of the central importance of the user interface. The latter can be directly traced back to bikes, which employed a system of easily operated controls that allowed near-instantaneous corrections, something the Wrights knew was critical in a machine as unforgiving of gross errors as aircraft would be. And they were right about that, though the way they approached it was wrong.

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Regardless, the Wrights’ mission was clear to them. They needed to create a machine light enough and with enough lift and thrust to be able to fly on the handful of horses a low-power-output engine of the day might offer. Airfoils were existing art, as were aircraft controls, though neither had achieved anything resembling a mature stage.

Thanks to the technological progress wrought by 40 years of war, by the mid-1940s, designers had come up with what we still know as the modern airplane, a reinforced sheet-metal four-seater sporting a forgiving wing with flaps and powered by a slow-turning, four- to six-cylinder opposed internal combustion engine.

In creating that perfect machine for personal flight, at least in broad terms, we painted ourselves into a corner, as often happens with technology. What becomes popular becomes standard, and that standard enforces infrastructure choices, like what fuel you have at the airport, not to mention airports and how they’re designed to begin with.  

What this all meant is that, yes, we had a lot of great airplanes produced over a roughly 35-year period ending in 1980 or so, but it also meant that during that time, alternative visions of the small airplane never gained any traction. There were outliers, Burt Rutan and Leo Windecker, to name a couple, but the marketplace enforced a conformity to existing standards that was hard, if not impossible, to buck. Novel configurations, diesel power, advanced lift devices and innovative fuels are all innovations that got left by the wayside.

To be fair, there are some really innovative airplanes that have gotten approved over the past couple of decades. Shoutouts to the designers at companies like Diamond Aircraft, the most innovative plane maker in Part 23 aviation, and Cirrus, who popularized a number of innovative approaches to light airplanes. And there are a number of great airplanes still being produced, just not in great numbers or at affordable prices. 

Plus, all of these innovative planes fit into a neat pre-existing structure. It couldn’t have been otherwise. With an entire generation of pilots mostly happy to participate in the American Aviation Experiment—I was and am—there needed to be big rocks ahead indeed to get that train to even slow down.

Those big rocks are the aging out of the large existing fleet of classic-gena aircraft, the youngest of which are 40 years old, the depletion of potential pilots based on economic factors that are way bigger than our little small plane niche, and the running up against environmental restrictions that we failed to head off 50 years ago, when we first knew there was a problem.

So take each of those factors—fewer pilots, aircraft aging out and an unsustainable fuel. Then figure out how to overcome each of those factors. It’s not hard. More affordable, safer and cleaner airplanes will help create the next gen of light aviation. 

Like the Wrights, all the tech we need to get there exists, though, as was the case at Kitty Hawk, some of it is immature. But all of it is doable, and there is already big money at work trying to get it done.

I don’t know if Joby’s all-electric powered, computer-controlled craft is the next Wright Flyer, but it has all the necessary ingredients, except maybe price, but that will follow.

In asking how such an aircraft will fit into light aviation, we are missing the point. It’s always worked the other way around. The new world comes to those who open their minds to new possibilities.

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